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Washington’s Idiotic Echo Chamber

David Samuels’ long-form essay last weekend in the New York Times Magazine about President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser and spokesmen Ben Rhodes has sent the media into a tizzy. 

Rhodes had to sell the Iranian nuclear deal to a skeptical American public. He freely admits that he did so by manipulating a select group of reporters that he and staff think are idiots and molded them into his own personal echo chamber.

It wasn’t difficult. “All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” he told Samuels. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”

What a gob-smacking couple of sentences.

First, though, it’s true that the vast majority of newspapers no longer have foreign bureaus. Foreign correspondence is spectacularly expensive to produce. Newspapers can’t afford it. Hardly anyone subscribes anymore, and one of their biggest old cash cows—the classified ads section—has been outsourced to eBay and Craigslist. Money is tight and foreign bureaus were always the most expensive part of a news operation. 

If you want to blame someone or something, blame the Internet.

This sentence, though, is incredible: “They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo.”

What on earth could a White House official possibly know about what’s happening in Moscow or Cairo? Journalists should only call Ben Rhodes if they want to know what’s happening in the White House.

If you’re a reporter who wants to know who’s who and what’s what in Russia or Egypt, you should get on a plane. It will set you back thousands of dollars, though, and your editors will pay you a couple hundred bucks at most for a story, so it’s not a viable option if you don’t have a trust fund. The media business ain’t what it used to be. That’s for damn sure.

But you can call people in Moscow and Cairo. You can talk to them on Skype. You can email them. You can interview Egyptians and Russians who live here. They usually know how to explain things in clear English with references that make sense to Americans.

And you damn well better read books about Russian and Egyptian history so that you’ll have some background and context. You don’t need to know the name of the pharaoh who preceded Cleopatra, but you should at least familiarize yourself with what happened there during the last century or two.

I spent more than a decade interviewing people all over the world, sometimes on the phone and via email, but most of the time in person on the other side of the world. I’ve interviewed every type of person imaginable, from military commanders and heads of state to war refugees and homeless people who sleep outside in slums.

Trust me on this: government officials are almost always the worst sources and interview subjects. That’s true everywhere in the world. They live in rarefied bubbles. They lie. They leave things out, sometimes because they want to and sometimes because they have to. They’re often incompetent and even more often shockingly ignorant. Everyone has opinions, and lots of people have agendas, but nobody has an agenda the way government officials have agendas.

It has never even occurred to me to interview a government official in one country about what’s happening in another country.

There are exceptions. Occasionally I’ve been delighted by government officials in the most unlikely places, including in Cairo. In general, though, they’re the least interesting and the least reliable.

The last person you should be talking to, in other words, is Ben Rhodes.

“We created an echo chamber,” he said when Samuels asked him about the “onslaught of freshly minted experts” who explained the Iran deal to the American public. “They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”

This wouldn’t be the big deal that it is if Rhodes gave honest information to the journalists in his little chamber, but he didn’t. “I’d prefer a sober, reasoned public debate, after which members of Congress reflect and take a vote,” he told Samuels. “But that’s impossible.”

It’s not impossible. Saying it’s impossible is his excuse for being part of the problem instead of the solution.

According to him, the Obama administration began negotiating with the Iranian government in 2013 after the moderate Hassan Rouhani won the presidential election on a campaign based in part on mending ties with the West. It was a nice story. It convinced a lot of people who know little or nothing about the Iranian government. Even so, it failed to convince most. Even after Rhodes’ full court press, only 21 percent of Americans thought Washington’s deal with Tehran made any sense. That’s still far higher than the percentage of Americans who have a good opinion of the Iranian government. At the beginning of Obama’s presidency, that number was only eight percent, and it’s not much better now. Still, Rhodes’ tale had an effect.

There are a couple of things wrong with his story, however. First, as Samuels reports, “Obama’s closest advisers always understood him to be eager to do a deal with Iran as far back as 2012, and even since the beginning of his presidency.” Second, Rouhani isn’t even a moderate by Middle Eastern standards, let alone international standards. Third, Rhodes didn’t even believe his own story. “I would prefer that it turns out that Rouhani and [foreign minister Mohammad] Zarif are real reformers who are going to be steering this country into the direction that I believe it can go in…” he admitted to Samuels, “but we are not betting on that.”

All this was obvious to the Iranian opposition, Middle East experts, and professional Iran watchers. The know-nothing reporters Rhodes cultivated could have easily found real sources of information about what was really happening in Iran and how Iran’s political system really works. This is not secret knowledge. You don’t have to be some kind of an insider. You can find this information by Googling it.

You can find just about anything by Googling it, and sometimes it’s hard to know what’s true and what isn’t when you’re unfamiliar with a subject as complex as Iranian politics, but under what theory is Ben Rhodes the wise man on the mountain who can make sense of it all?

Ben Rhodes has no more experience with arms control or Iran’s internal political system than the 27-year old reporters who, according to him, “literally know nothing.” He’s familiar with his own policy, of course, and he knows how to communicate, but all the rest of it is out of his wheelhouse. 

“It was, ‘Are you with us or are you against us?’” said David Albright, an arms control expert with the Institute for Science and International Security in an interview with US News. “The White House was looking for sound bites that beat the opposition, not necessarily sound bites that captured the truth of what was going on. I wish they were just putting out facts. They exaggerated and overstated to sell the deal.”

“Like Obama,” Samuels writes in the New York Times Magazine, “Rhodes is a storyteller who uses a writer’s tools to advance an agenda that is packaged as politics but is often quite personal. He is adept at constructing overarching plotlines with heroes and villains, their conflicts and motivations supported by flurries of carefully chosen adjectives, quotations and leaks from named and unnamed senior officials. He is the master shaper and retailer of Obama’s foreign-policy narratives, at a time when the killer wave of social media has washed away the sand castles of the traditional press. His ability to navigate and shape this new environment makes him a more effective and powerful extension of the president’s will than any number of policy advisers or diplomats or spies. His lack of conventional real-world experience of the kind that normally precedes responsibility for the fate of nations — like military or diplomatic service, or even a master’s degree in international relations, rather than creative writing — is still startling.”

It’s okay that Rhodes has a creative writing background. Creative writing is my field too. I studied it and practiced it long before I became a journalist, a travel writer, a foreign policy analyst and a Middle East “expert.” I’ve written two novels. My second, Resurrection, has been optioned for film. The sequel is now almost finished. I’m perfectly capable of learning how to do more than one thing. Most people are.

Arthur C. Clarke is most well known for his fiction writing—especially 2001: A Space Odyssey, but by using his technical and scientific knowledge he played a vital role in establishing our global system of geostationary telecommunications satellites. Michael Punke, author of The Revenant—made last year into the film starring Leonardo DiCaprio—is currently the U.S. Representative and Ambassador to the World Trade Organization in Switzerland. Novelist Caleb Carr, author of the best-selling novel The Alienest, is also a military historian, a terrorism expert and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

So we shouldn’t think for a moment that Rhodes’ background in creative writing disqualifies him from his job as a foreign policy maker. Creative writing isn’t finger-painting. It cannot be mastered. Not even William Shakespeare pulled that off. A background in creative writing by itself, however, is no more relevant to successfully negotiating an agreement with a hostile totalitarian power than a degree in dentistry. Samuels is quite right to be startled that Rhodes leapt from fiction writing to foreign policy without much in between.

Rhodes at least learned something about the Iraq war before tackling Iran. As an aid to Representative Lee Hamilton (D-Indiana), he took notes during the Iraq Study Group meeting and wrote parts of the report. He never went to Iraq, though. The Iraq Study Group report was mostly a set of policy prescriptions, some of them smart and some of them boneheaded, crafted by people who were, as military personnel like to put it, “echelons above reality,” too far removed from what was actually happening on the ground in Iraq. None of the eight people in the Iraq Study Group were idiots, but Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor and businessman Vernon Jordan have no more business crafting American foreign policy than Robert DeNiro does. If you want to know what went on in Iraq, and how American policy affected that country for good and for ill, you’ll have to learn it from Iraqis who live there and American soldiers and Marines who served there.

Rhodes hates the foreign policy establishment. He calls it, for whatever reason, the Blob. Its members are all, according to him, a bunch of “morons.” “According to Rhodes,” Samuels writes, “the Blob includes Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and other Iraq-war promoters from both parties who now whine incessantly about the collapse of the American security order in Europe and the Middle East.”

Aggressive intervention in Iraq failed to make the Middle East a better place. No question about it. So did light intervention in Libya. So did non-intervention in Syria. Nothing seems to work over there. Whether you’re hawkish or dovish, interventionist or isolationist, the last decade of history should be embarrassing. 

Foreign policy is excruciatingly hard. It requires us to choose the least horrible option, and the least horrible option is never obvious, especially not in an unpredictable and often nonsensical place like the Middle East. Ghastly things happen no matter what we do, even if we do everything right. That wouldn’t change if we launched every member of the Blob into orbit.  

We are all anti-establishment now (except those of us who are not). Even President Obama’s chief foreign policy advisor is anti-establishment now, even though, as Eli Lake put it in Bloomberg, Obama's foreign policy guru is the 'Blob' he hates.

Hatred of the establishment, whether it’s genuine or affected, is a reaction against the inadequacies and failures of the past and present, and it’s perfectly understandable. Sometimes it’s tempting to think a plumber from Poughkeepsie or a real estate agent from Des Moines might handle world affairs better than George W. Bush and Barack Obama, but replacing the old Blob with a fresh one produces the same result as a revolt against knowledge and experience.

Postscript: My seventh book, Dispatches, is out now. You can get the trade paperback edition from Amazon.com for 19.99 or the Kindle edition for only 9.99.

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